A gifted young man with a horn, a vision, and a dream, saxophonist Mike Casey is in championship form for his “biggest gig yet as a leader” when he performs with his swinging, crisply interactive trio on Friday, February 26, at 8:30 pm at Old Lyme’s prestigious Side Door Jazz Club.
Casey, a 22-year-old graduate of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School, has excelled as a sideman at such famous venues as Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Minton’s and Smalls Jazz Club. He is an alumnus of the distinguished Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center who has already made a number of well-received sideman appearances with big name performers at The Side Door.
"Now’s The Time" -- as the existential title of a famous Charlie Parker tune once proclaimed -- for Casey to lead his own band at the red-hot jazz spot that has skyrocketed to regional acclaim and beyond.
Casey, a rising Hartford-based saxophonist, songwriter, and arranger who grew up in Storrs, returns to the shoreline club as a marquee act basking in the limelight on alto and tenor with his longtime trio mates, double bassist Matt Dwonszyk and drummer Corey Garcia.
Casey graduated from the Hartford Academy of the Performing Arts and began jamming in Hartford clubs when only a junior in high school. He took his first baby steps into music in fifth grade with saxophone lessons.
"Originally, I wanted to play drums," Casey said. "But my Mom said that 'would just be too loud.' Little did she know that once I got better on the saxophone, it was also going to be extremely loud."
His supportive parents, Bob and Barbara Casey, love jazz. So Mike's childhood home was alive with the sound of the music.
Nurtured in this happily hip atmosphere, Casey inevitably got hooked on Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker.
A life-shaping epiphany occurred, he said, when he first heard Rollins’s Tenor Madness, a classic album that includes a momentous recorded collaboration between Rollins and Coltrane.
Rollins’s groundbreaking saxophone trio recordings, with just tenor, bass, and drums, were the initial inspiration that set Casey down his creative path of exploring the rich sonic possibilities of that intimate, three-in-one format. What especially moves him, he said, is the saxophone trio’s rich potential for colors, textures, and what he calls its contrapuntal challenge.
His wide-ranging historical interest in the saxophone trio sweeps right up to the present with such contemporary practitioners as Joshua Redman and JD Allen.
While he values and has studied the music’s rich tradition, he also keeps his mind and ears open to change and innovation. Using a Janus-like vision simultaneously encompassing both the past and the future, he filters his ideas through his own musical and life experiences, honing his own voice to create his uniquely original brand of glorious saxophone madness and gladness, well-honed, accessible, and joyful.
As Casey was starting out on saxophone, his boyhood dream was to become an NBA star. But those reveries of hard court glory were dashed early on at E.O. Smith High School when he was cut from the freshman team.
With his hoop dreams deflated, jazz stepped in as his prime motivator, his true love, not just a rebound romance after being so cruelly jilted by basketball. At the same time, however, Casey -- who, aside from his growing obsession with jazz, was an otherwise typical teenager -- still listened to and loved everything from pop to hip-hop, and even worked as a nightclub DJ.
In his sophomore year in high school, he began splitting his day between classes at E.O. Smith and intense jazz studies at The Hartford Academy, busing from Storrs to Hartford every afternoon four days a week.
“I was completely immersed in the music. I knew within the first month of getting to the Academy that this is what I wanted to do with my life, for certain,” he said of his passionate commitment.
Inspired by his first urban taste of Hartford, the talented kid from rustic Storrs began gigging on the bustling jazz scene in the capital city. Horn in hand, he’d show up at jam sessions, gaining formative experience by “getting to hit notes” with such consummate jazz professionals and Hartt School educators as trombonist Steve Davis and bassist Nat Reeves, who would later mentor him at Hartt's prestigious Jackie McLean Institute.
Besides focusing on his vital trio project, Casey, a two-time nominee for Best Jazz in the Connecticut Music Awards, has distinguished himself in sideman roles with numerous jazz luminaries.
Among these are Marc Cary at the noted pianist’s Harlem Sessions in New York City, where the genre-crossing repertoire freewheels from bop to hip-hop and beyond.
Casey has led his own quintet at the Hartford Jazz Society’s Monday Night Jazz Series in Bushnell Park, and has performed with Cary’s aggregation at several jazz festivals, including the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, New Jersey.
His immediate goals, he said, are to make his recording debut with his first-rate trio and to save up enough money to finance the ritual giant step to the Big Apple, which he calls “the gateway to the world for a musician.”
Celebrating Nina Simone
A profoundly expressive singer, classically trained pianist, and socially conscious songwriter, crusader against racism, advocate of black pride, and seeker of social justice, Nina Simone (1933-2003) experienced the height of artistic acclaim before descending into a deep personal hell, pursued by the furies of physical and mental torment.
The Life and Song of Nina Simone: A Tertulia, a portrait of the complex, multi-faceted, African-American artist, will be presented, admission free, on Tuesday, March 1, at 6:00 pm at the Hartford History Center, third floor, at the Hartford Public Library. A tertulia, the library notes, is a social gathering with literary or artistic overtones.
Vocalist Margaux Hayes performs some of Simone’s signature songs. Gail Woldu, a music professor at Trinity College, discusses the expatriate diva’s turbulent life and evocative, provocative music, its soaring beauty as well as its searing rage surging through such classic freedom anthems as "Mississippi Goddam," her scorched-earth assault on racism in America.
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